A Year-End Chat with Harold Bloom


Harold Bloom, one of our towering public intellectuals, speaks—thinks—in full paragraphs, with the illuminating and often funny tangents and asides that fill his books, editing himself as he goes along, referencing his previous work (often verbatum) and others' books and poems (ditto). Jesus and Yahweh is bound to be one of Bloom's most controversial works, and he is prepared for whatever onslaught comes his way—and in his interviews is confident enough of his views to display little concern with smoothing the feathers he is bound to ruffle among believing Jews and Christians.

Writer Michael Kress recently spoke to Bloom in an illuminating phone interview.

Tell me a little about why you decided to write a book about Jesus and Yahweh.

I think I've always intended to write such a book, as far back as I can remember. Indeed, I think I say somewhere in the book that when I wrote the first draft of what six years later—in the summer of 1967, when I was turning 37—I wrote the first draft of what eventually became, in January 1973, a rather small book called The Anxiety of Influence, and it had a section on the actual relation as compared to the stated relation of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, with the New Testatment, as the largest single instance of what I called the "anxiety of influence" I knew. That section, I remember, went on to a character and personality analysis of both Jesus and Yahweh.

But it had begun a long time earlier than that, when I was just a small child in the Bronx, and we grew up all of us speaking Yiddish in that neighborhood. I had been born in the United States but didn't know any English because none was spoken at home or in the streets. We were a solid enclave of some 600,000 Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But I still remember one day that a missionary came to the door with a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere existence of it. It shows the hopelessness of the Christian quest to convert the Jews. Indeed, it reminds me of Andrew Marvel's splendid seduction poem, "To His Coy Mistress": "You should refuse, should you choose, until the conversion of the Jews." But which implies the lady will eventually yield.

In the book, you talk about both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism as reactions to the times—what was going on in Palestine at the time...

Yes, but another oddity of the book—and already I've gotten some negative, shall we say, normative Jewish reactions to this—is that I point out that, contrary to what we normally think, Judaism, what we call Judaism, is a younger religion than Christianity. St. Paul did not inaugurate Christianity. He was converted, probably in Aleppo, though he says his experience was in Damascus, by a Hellenistic, probably Jewish-Christian community, to a doctrine that already existed. He became the apostle or great propagandizer of it, the traveling salesman for it, as it were.

But what we call Judaism does not begin until the second century of the common era, with the rabbis clustered around Akiba and Tarfon and Ishmael, and the great sages. And the great Hillel is as much as their creation, for all we know, since we have no independent historical evidence that links them to him, the great Hillel is as much as their creation as Jesus is evidently the creation of those who came before Paul—Paul, and the authors of the New Testament.

I am curious about your use of the term Yahweh to refer to the Jewish god. Again, something that is not normative.

I am talking about the actual text of the Tanakh. There are thousands and thousands of times in that text the name Yahweh occurs. Since it is not pointed—it doesn't have vowels—and so we will never know how it's pronounced, but the YHWH—called Tetragrammaton in Greek—is there. It became a tradition very early on among normative Jews that this was the unspeakable name of God, and you substituted Adonai for it, or you substituted Elohim, the plural form, or you substituted all kinds of things. But nevertheless, that is the name, and the name seems to have been inaugurated by the J writer or the Yahwist when Moses is going to be going down into Egypt rather reluctantly and says, "They'll laugh at me. Who shall I say has sent me?" and gets the massive punning answer, "Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you," which is invariably translated as "I am that I am" but actually means "I will be that I will be" or to put this into English so it is coherent, "I will be present wherever and whenever I choose to be present."

And as I grimly keep repeating throughout the book quite deliberately, that necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000 years for the absence of this personage than the presence.

Yahweh certainly doesn't come across as a sympathetic character...

You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news.

Yet you seem to have a certain affinity...

He interests me greatly. I say toward the end of the book, I would like to tell him to just go away, since he's gone away anyway, but it isn't that easy. I end the book on a rather wistful note. There may be a little irony in the wistfulness, but I well remember the last sentence in the book, and it's very deliberately the last sentence, speaking of Yahweh it says, "Will he yet make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?"

You also describe a certain playfulness or impishness that you seem to have a soft spot for.

There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years [of] wandering through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier and the poor things get crazier and crazier. One of my favorite passages in the book is what I am talking about—the ridiculous attempt on the part, first, of the neo-Platonizing Jews like Philo of Alexandria, and then later the high rabbinical sages, to get rid of what they might call the anthropomorphic element and say he isn't a man, he isn't a human, he doesn't do certain things, since it's made very clear that he's walking down the road frequently, that he's picnicking, that he's doing this, that, and the other thing, that he's burying Moses with his own hands, he is closing the door of the Ark with his own hands, and so on.

At one point, I enjoy myself with the rather impish sentence in which I say, "You have to conceive of him as marching around with a group of rabbis and sages trailing after him and saying, 'He's not walking.'"

The great Akiba himself, his favorite name or word for the unpronounceable Yahweh was "Ish," which is just "man." Yahweh is not a theological God. Theology is Greek, as the word itself indicates. Yahweh is a human, all-too-human, much, much-too-human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

As for Jesus, there isn't any single Jesus. There are Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses and Jesuses. Indeed, here in the United States, it seems to me that every professed Christian has her or his own Jesus, just as every supposed scholar in that mad, quixotic quest (rather pathetic) for the historical Jesus, they always come up with a reflection of themselves in a concave mirror, a kind of distorted image of themselves.

I am curious, in light of the anecdote you tell in the book and that you mentioned earlier, about the Yiddish Bible and the futility of the Christian missionary effort, what do you think of the growing relationship today between evangelical Christians and Jews?

It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition. I say this in spite of the political good that this does for the State of Israel or the remnant of Jewry. Nevertheless, it is an absurd fiction. There is no Judeo-Christian tradition. There cannot be. What is at the heart of the book is a very grim fact: As you and I talk to each other at the moment, we are in a cosmos in which there are one-and-a-half-billion people who call themselves Christians. One-and-a-half-billion people who call themselves Muslims. There are 14 million self-identified Jews. That takes care of Yahweh on the one hand, and that takes care of—since we're outnumbered a thousand to one by each—that takes care of.... ah, never mind. I don't want to say the obvious. That's part of the problem with this book. To say the transparently clear and plain gives offense.

You mention in the book that Yahweh, because of the huge disparity in the number of Jews and Muslims in the world, Yahweh mostly lives on in the Muslim Allah.

The closest thing that we have—since the Christian God the Father isn't even a pale shadow of Yahweh, and the Adonai, or whatever you want to call him, the rabbinical, normative of what is now Judaism, has much more in common with the God of Deuteronomy or of the so-called priestly author strand in the Torah than the original Yahwistic portion—it is a very strange irony, even though he's by no means identical, but that nevertheless that Allah, which is itself an Arabic variant on Elohim, of the recital or Koran, has on the whole more features in common with the original Yahweh, though he's by no means identical with him.

And what are some of those commonalities?

Total authority, total demand for submission. Remember that Islam is a word meaning submission, and the Muslim is one who submits to the supposed will of God. It's the assumption of total authority.

To switch gears a little bit, can you explain your affinity for Gnosticism?

Gnosticism is not, of course, a religion, it is a tendency. And I have always had a deep affinity for it, yes.

Can you explain what Gnosticism is and why you find it attractive?

The Gospel of Thomas, which is proto-Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic or a mixture of Gnosticism and ordinary Christianity, shows it pretty clearly. Or what I would call "the American Religion" is clearly a Gnosticism: The belief that the best and oldest part of you, the most inmost part, is no part of the created world at all, that it is part of the original Godhead; the belief that except for that spark or breath hidden deep within the lock of the self and very hard to get at, that otherwise all divinity consists of is a good God who has either been exiled to or has exiled himself to the outer spaces, out beyond our cosmos, and he cannot get in touch with us, and we cannot get in touch with him or it or her or whatever you want to call him.

Look at the epigraph of my book. There is a hidden purpose in that. It's from William Blake's "To the Accuser Who Is a God of This World." And since the book was already going to be offensive enough, I left off the first stanza, which goes: "Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,/And dost not know the Garment from the Man./Every Harlot was a Virgin once,/Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan." And then I quote the second stanza: "Tho’ thou art Worship’d by the Names Divine/Of Jesus and Jehovah,"—which is the spelling error that Yahweh becomes—"thou are still/The Son of Morn in weary Night’s decline,/The lost Traveller’s Dream under the Hill." There's the essence of a Gnostic's stance. A god of this world, worshipped under the names of Jesus, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, call it what you will, God the Father, the Holy Ghost—which by the way is nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, it's a weird importation—they are cons who rule a ruined world.

And the third part of this belief is that what we call the creation was itself a destruction. That the creation and the fall were not two events, but one and the same event. That's it in a nutshell.

And what is your affinity for it?

To me, it makes imaginative and spiritual sense. And indeed, I think it has been the burden of the greatest poets of the last several centuries in all the major languages.

Since the Jewish High Holidays are here, I am curious how in your mind the ideas of forgiveness and repentance differ in Jesus and Yahweh, or for that matter, Yahweh and the Jewish God.

On the basis of the only two versions of Jesus in which I can put the slightest trust—that is very slight—the original Gospel of Mark on the one hand, where he's a total enigma, and the Gospel of Thomas on the other, there is no gap between Jesus and Yahweh. Jesus is not a Christian. He may be a Christian to Mel Gibson, but he is not a Christian to Mark. He is a faithful follower of Yahweh alone.

But this mercy and forgiveness bit is common to both rabbinical Judaism and to—at least it's given lip service in—Christianity. I haven't seen much mercy or forgiveness in the historical record of Western Christianity, which is unbelievably ghastly and horrible. Always was, always will be. Look at the Christian Right in the United States today. Look at the Rev. Pat Robertson. There's a Christian.